Former Orioles player Cal Ripken Jr. reminisces about the Orioles' 1983 world championship. (Algerina PErna, Baltimore Sun video)
Cal Ripken Jr. still feels that hard sphere settling into his glove, even 35 years later as he sits at a conference table in a nondescript Baltimore County office park.
“I just squeezed my hand over the ball,” he said of the last out of the 1983 World Series. “And the feeling of fulfillment, joy, accomplishment — there was just this finality to holding the ball in your glove.”
The Iron Man is 57 now, thicker in build and creakier in his movements than in the summer of 1983, when he was a lanky kid streaking to his first American League MVP. But he still has the famous blue eyes, matched by those of his late father — the third base coach on the 1983 team — staring down from a portrait hanging in Ripken’s office.
If he closes those eyes, he has no trouble putting himself back into his younger body, seeing that “humpback” liner floating his way and calculating whether to leap. His baseball career, remarkable throughout, would never reach a higher summit than on that Sunday evening in Philadelphia.
The 1983 Orioles — the franchise’s last world champions — have only grown in stature over time, even as the lives of individual players have sometimes taken disappointing or tragic turns.
They represented the last great payoff of the vaunted “Oriole Way,” the Baltimore code word for a farsighted philosophy of homegrown pitching depth, creative roster assembly and attention to detail.
Those Orioles prided themselves on calm professionalism. They weren’t going to overwhelm you with fierce emotions or free-agent star power. They didn’t throw at opposing batters or bark at umpires. But give them nine innings or better yet, 162 games, and they believed they would outthink and outmaneuver any foe.
They ably carried the banner of Orioles Magic. How else to explain the Aug. 24 game when closer Tippy Martinez picked off consecutive Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th inning, with utility man Lenn Sakata squatting as the emergency catcher?
The roster also featured its share of offbeat characters, from wry New Englander Mike Flanagan to one of the least likely World Series MVPs in history, catcher Rick Dempsey. They carried nicknames such as Rhino, Brother Lo, T-Bone and Cy Clone.
But it was not a team defined by quirks or odd turns of fortune.
“It was fun, but it wasn’t fun in a crazy sort of way,” Ripken said. “When it came time to get down to business, doing the fundamentals in spring training, that team seriously did it. And then when it came down to a close, one-run game, I remember thinking … we have the advantage. There was a sort of calm confidence to that team that was really admirable. I’ve been on teams where players say you should really enjoy your win, turn the radio up really loud and have a festive atmosphere. With this team, if you were in the locker room after the game, you couldn’t tell if we had won or lost.”
Anyone who grew up with that team and endured the subsequent years of losing remembers 1983 in a golden light. The players do, too.
But it’s been a long time now. Several baseball generations have passed and even the youngest players on the 1983 roster are pushing 60. The crueler strains of nature have begun to take their toll on a team that was rarely outlasted on the field.
Third baseman Todd Cruz was the first to go in 2008, dead of a heart attack in his swimming pool at age 52 after a period of domestic turbulence and drinking problems. Three years later, Flanagan — who had served as the Orioles general manager for a time — walked into the woods outside his Baltimore County home with a shotgun and took his own life. On March 2, affable reliever Sammy Stewart, who had fought an addiction to crack cocaine and spent several stints in prison, was found dead in North Carolina at age 63.
Second baseman Rich Dauer nearly died as well, collapsing from a blood clot in his brain even as the Houston Astros, the team for which he worked as a coach, celebrated their 2017 World Series victory.
Even the team’s greatest stars, Ripken and first baseman Eddie Murray, have endured their public difficulties.
In 2012, Murray agreed to pay $358,151 to settle charges he’d illegally profited from an insider trading scheme involving former teammate Doug DeCinces.
Ripken’s 2016 divorce from his wife of nearly 30 years, Kelly, made headlines, and Harford County’s favorite son has also been sparring with Aberdeen officials over the financial management of Ripken Stadium. For years, Ripken talked of getting back into the major leagues as a manager or general manager, but at 57, he acknowledges the window for that possibility is narrowing.
These tragedies and disappointments could have struck any group of 25 men moving from middle to retirement age. But they’ve brought a bittersweet tone to remembrances of Baltimore’s last baseball champion.
You can hear the players’ voices change — the words coming softer and slower — when they think back on lost comrades.
In 1983, Boddicker was the rookie sensation, stabilizing a rotation beset by injuries and soaking in daily pitching wisdom from Flanagan, McGregor and future Hall of Fame selection Jim Palmer. Now, he’s a 60-year-old grandfather of seven who’s taking a break from restoring his daughter’s bathroom to reflect on that remarkable team and the friends he’s lost.
“You go to spring training in February and then you’re with those guys daily through October, and then you turn around and do it again,” he said. “So you’re pretty much family. You’re pretty tight with the guys. That ’83 team, even on off days, we’d get together and have picnics and stuff. So yeah, it’s hard.”
All three deaths hit former teammates hard, but Flanagan seems to bring out the strongest emotions. They so admired his physical toughness, acumen for pitching and razor wit.
“Mike was, in his time, the biggest horse in the game,” Dempsey said. “He had some demons, but, no doubt, being able to get out on the field and focus on winning helped keep them at bay. We were a true family, but once that professional limelight is gone, and those friendships go long distance, it affects every player. Mike’s demons got worse.”
Ripken chooses not to dwell on the more painful stories of recent years.
“Everybody goes through life. Everybody has issues in life and you have challenges you move through,” he said. “To try to understand why people died and what happened in their lives, it’s the reality of what exists in life. It’s sad, but I still look back on the three teammates we lost — I see them the way they were when they were playing in 1983. There was a special piece of them you borrowed and they borrowed it from you.”
Calm and professional though they were, those Orioles carried a heavy chip on their collective shoulders. Fifteen remained from the team that lost the 1979 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates after leading, three games to one. Even more had been on the team that lost the AL East to the Milwaukee Brewers on the last day of the 1982 season.
“We were all focused on making up for blowing the Series,” Dempsey said. “The pain of that had been hard to live with.”
They’d have to do it without the presence of feisty, domineering manager Earl Weaver, chief architect of the team’s on-field mission. In his place sat Joe Altobelli, who’d made his reputation as a winner at Triple-A Rochester.
“It got a lot quieter,” Singleton said with a laugh.
The players agree that Altobelli’s smartest move was to change almost nothing.
“This ship is steering itself,” Flanagan proclaimed in the clubhouse. And everyone was fine with that.
“I just tried to keep us pointed in the same direction we’ve been going in the the last 20 or 25 years,” Altobelli said then. The Orioles knew their roles. The bench players were not given to delusions of grandeur. They knew when and why they’d be needed, and they accepted it. The club played as if on automatic pilot.
“One game, the other team changed pitchers, which meant [John] Lowenstein would go in for [left fielder] Gary Roenicke, who was due to bat next,” pitching coach Ray Miller recalled. “In the dugout, Altobelli turned to me and said, ‘Tell Lowenstein to get ready to hit.’ But when I looked out, Gary was already on the bench and John was kneeling on deck.”
Historically slow starters, the Orioles won 11 of their first 20 and were never more than three games off the pace. McGregor won three straight complete games in April. Flanagan started 6-0 despite a pulled groin muscle that shortened his stride, forced him to relax and, coincidentally, made him harder to hit.
Each day, another hitter got hot. On April 10, Murray slammed four hits, including No. 1,000 of his career, to rout the Cleveland Indians. In May, Dan Ford hit game-winning home runs in back-to-back contests.
In one victory, Ripken had five hits, two of them homers; another time, Lowenstein crashed a pinch-hit grand slam in the ninth inning to beat the New York Yankees.
“Our strength is someone else doing it every day,” Murray said at the time.
Dempsey struggled at first, twice striking out three times in April — a sin for which, according to Murray’s decree, he had to carry an orange neon Wiffle bat at all times in public. Then, on April 12 in Chicago, Dempsey hit a two-run double to beat the White Sox, 10-8.
“Hallelujah!” Altobelli exclaimed. “He got a game-winner.”
The carousel of temporary stars played out to the end. On Sept. 25, the Orioles clinched the division as Jim Dwyer and Joe Nolan, irregulars both, homered to defeat Milwaukee, 5-1.
Was it destiny? The club won in wondrous ways. Though pummeled for 22 hits by the Texas Rangers, the Orioles triumphed, 14-11. Trailing the White Sox, 4-2, and down to their last out, they ticked off five singles to win, 5-4. Three sacrifice bunts helped dispatch the Minnesota Twins. And never mind the six errors they made in a 10-7 victory against the Brewers. Twice, they defeated the defending AL champs after trailing by seven runs.
“It’s amazing how we won games,” Nolan said. “It was a good year, a lucky year, a fun year.”
Every front-office move struck gold. In May, in his first start up from the minors, Boddicker shut out the mighty White Sox, 5-0.
Boddicker had been up for brief stints each of the previous three seasons, and he had every expectation that when Palmer returned from a strained back, he’d go right back to Triple-A.
“The minute I got there in May, I walked into [general manager] Hank Peters’ office and he said, ‘Don’t give up your apartment in Rochester,’ ” Boddicker recalled.
But injuries kept unsettling the rotation, and Boddicker kept fooling batters with his slow changeup and even slower curveball. “By the time everybody got healthy, I had about 10 wins,” he said. “And I don’t think they wanted to send me anywhere.”
It was a familiar story for a franchise that had mastered developing pitchers. And Boddicker saved his most remarkable starts for the postseason, when he allowed a combined eight hits and no earned runs in complete-game wins over the White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.
In July, the light-hitting Cruz celebrated his trade to Baltimore with a three-run homer and six RBIs. A late-season call-up, rookie catcher John Stefero (Mount Saint Joseph) chipped in with consecutive walk-off hits. Acquired down the stretch, outfielder Tito Landrum, with all of three career homers, struck the decisive blow in the American League Championship Series.
“We won some games this year that were ungodly,” Altobelli told the media.
The most memorable game? A 7-4 victory against Toronto in August that triggered an eight-game winning streak and sparked the stretch run. It played out like a script by the Coen brothers. With the score tied in the 10th inning and the bench already depleted, Altobelli put outfielders at second base and third (Lowenstein and Roenicke) and made Sakata catch. The ploy worked. After the Blue Jays pulled ahead on a homer, one player singled and was caught stealing; two others reached base but were picked off by Martinez. Sakata then won it with a walk-off, three-run homer to cap a four-run inning for the Orioles.
“It’s like a Fantasy Island,” Martinez said after the win.
Years later, Roenicke recalled, Toronto coach Jimy Williams told him, “When you guys won that game, I knew you were a shoo-in to take the World Series.”
The Orioles won 18 of their next 21 games, outscoring opponents 142 to 50 over that span. Flanagan won five straight despite wearing a brace on the left knee in which he’d torn ligaments in May.
“You look at that brace and, sure, it concerns you,” Altobelli said then. “But [Flanagan] has a lot of tiger in him.”
Flanagan also defeated Chicago in the ALCS, where the Orioles won three in a row after dropping the opener. Not that the loss worried them. In Game 2, they were late coming onto the field — and not because of a pep talk.
“We were all watching ‘Jeopardy!’ in the clubhouse,” Sakata remembered.
“We were so good at preparing for games that we weren’t surprised by a whole lot,” pitcher Storm Davis said. “It‘s like we were all stoics. We knew there’d be bumps in the road, but we always made adjustments to get stuff done.”
The World Series began as the ALCS had: a 2-1 loss, but to the Phillies. The Orioles then ran the table, allowing Philadelphia just seven runs over the four victories. Game 4 belonged to Davis, the youngest Oriole, who, at 21, set himself a modest goal.
“I didn’t want to suck,” he said. “I was the most nervous I’d ever been in uniform. I went to the bullpen to warm up, with [Phillies] fans yelling at me. On the mound, I tried not to look in the stands. Even now, in the quiet of day, if I close my eyes and let my mind drift, I can hear the noise. It’s like you’re next to the ocean, a loud roar that never stops. That memory, I have locked away.”
Before Game 5, the silence in the Orioles clubhouse was just as deafening.
“You could hear a pin drop, because everyone remembered what we hadn’t done four years before,” Dempsey said.
But McGregor and Murray sucked any tension out of Veterans Stadium — the pitcher with a masterful five-hit shutout and the first baseman with two titanic home runs. Ripken snared the final soft liner off the bat of Garry Maddox.
“We closed it out in beautiful style and vindicated ourselves. It was like a 5,000-pound weight had been lifted off our backs,” Dempsey said.
He did his part, batting .385 — more than 150 points over his season average — with four doubles and a home run to win Most Valuable Player.
The Orioles actually pinch hit for Dempsey twice in the Series, Singleton once and John Shelby once. As the Orioles celebrated after Game 5, Singleton stopped short, gobsmacked at the realization the nothing-hitting catcher would likely win the award.
“You could’ve gotten pretty long odds on that,” Singleton said, chuckling.
The trophy now sits on the bar in Dempsey’s California home. Sport Magazine presented him with a Pontiac Trans Am, which Dempsey gave to his son, John, on his 16th birthday.
“Driving to school, John hit a curb and bent an axle, and after the dealer fixed it, I went with him to get the car,” Dempsey said. “I said, ‘I’ll drive the Pontiac home, to make sure it’s aligned, and you take my Jeep Wagoneer.’
“Well, he followed me for 50 feet and crashed into the back of the Pontiac. The trunk was all freaking dented! I was so angry that when I got out, he was scuffling to lock every door and window in the Jeep. So we took it back to the shop and said, ‘You guys forgot to fix the rear end.’ ”
Nolan, Dempsey’s understudy, played little in the World Series despite a pregame buzz that he might start Game 1. That news prompted Nolan’s cousins to reach out to a warlock they knew in Miami.
“They asked the warlock to cast a spell to make the Orioles catcher the MVP of the Series,” Nolan said. “He guaranteed it would happen. I didn’t want to tell them they were nuts, but … the rest is history.”
Having won it all in Philadelphia, the Orioles returned home via I-95 — to their chagrin.
“We’d hoped we’d be playing the Dodgers, in Los Angeles, because we had so many silicon wonders on our team,” Roenicke said. “But instead of flying home in celebration with West Coast relatives and friends, we took a bus.”
Even those memories are cherished.
“Every year, I watch the last game of the World Series and sit here, with tears in my eyes, because I know exactly how it feels,” Miller said.
It’s hard for the players to wrap their minds around how long ago it happened.
There’s a sad side to that. But they’re also not above poking fun at their advancing years. The 70-year-old Singleton recently announced that this will be his last year calling Yankees games on the YES Network. The 72-year-old Palmer, still announcing games for the Orioles, quickly texted him, “Are you kidding me?”
“I’ll turn 58 this year, and it feels really weird just to say that,” Ripken said. “Time flies. It seems the clock ticks way faster the older you get. In some ways, you start to think about your life in baseball as a previous life. But in some ways, you can go right back into the moment of ’83, catching the last out of the World Series, and you’re young again.”